Young voters flock to Obama

By David Servatius, Staff Writer

Pollsters, pundits and the voting public seem to agree on at least one thing about this year’s presidential race&-among college students from coast to coast, there is something powerfully appealing about Sen. Barack Obama.

Even in Utah, traditionally the reddest of the red states, the 2008 Democratic nominee has captured the imagination and unleashed the collective energy of this particular demographic in a way not seen since Eugene McCarthy’s failed 1968 bid for the White House.

Poll after poll confirms college students and young voters are among Obama’s strongest and most committed bases of support. Some have said that this group was the key to his triumph over Sen. Hillary Clinton in the primary election and the reason he has been considered the front runner going into the general election against Sen. John McCain.

Leading in the polls

In April, at the height of the primary campaign, Alloy Media + Marketing’s 2008 College Explorer report showed that of the 1,554 U.S. college students ages 18-30 that were surveyed, Obama had the support of more than 43 percent of all respondents8212;double the level of support for either McCain, who captured 21 percent, or Clinton, at 18 percent.

Obama’s appeal among younger voters hasn’t diminished at all in the time since the primary campaigns ended and both of the major party nominees were selected.
Among all voters, the race has essentially tightened to a dead heat in most recent polls. A CNN survey taken over the weekend had it deadlocked at 47 percent apiece for Obama and McCain, and an Aug. 19 Wall Street Journal/NBC poll put the race at 45 percent to 42 percent for Obama.

However, a separate Wall Street Journal/NBC poll done in late July showed that among voters ages 18-34, Obama is trouncing McCain by a whopping 24 point margin.

In contrast, among voters age 65 and older in the same survey, McCain is favored by 10 percentage points, indicating that the engine driving Obama to victory in November is clearly the youth vote.

The Obama Appeal

Hinckley Institute of Politics Director Kirk Jowers said several factors contribute to the appeal Obama has among young voters and college students in particular.

“Barack Obama is one of the most exciting candidates we’ve had certainly in our students’ lifetime and, I think, in my lifetime,” Jowers said. “He’s charismatic, he’s young, he’s good looking and he gives the best speeches. But I think, even beyond all of those things, he’s run a very populist type of campaign.”

As examples, Jowers points to Obama’s decision to first announce his selection of a running mate via text message to millions of predominantly younger supporters and the visual settings he chooses for his speeches, with hundreds of mostly young faces arrayed on the platform behind him.

“It creates this kind of rock star feeling and it gives younger people some empowerment because they see others who are so excited,” Jowers said.

Erica Williams, policy and advocacy manager with Campus Progress, said as her group has been working with college students across the country she has seen firsthand the phenomenal level of enthusiasm and support on campuses for Obama.

Campus Progress is the youth outreach arm of the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. The staff works closely with students to train and support them in various types of campus activism and is positioned to observe whatever political trends exist at the college level.

A “perfect storm”

Williams said she believes several important issues have come into play all at once and are driving students in record numbers to the Obama camp.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm of events and occurrences and circumstances,” she said. “Of all demographics, young people are experiencing probably the greatest impact from the Iraq War, they are the most progressive on climate change and they really see this as a critical time in terms of the state of the economy with things like student debt, college affordability and jobs.”

As a result, Williams said interest in the presidential race among college students would be going up regardless of the candidate, but that these students are directing a lot of their energy toward Obama because of his proposed solutions to all of the challenges and because he simply makes the most sense to them.

“It’s not just because of his youthfulness, although that definitely doesn’t hurt,” Williams said. “It’s more that he’s in touch with what young people care about, not because he’s young but because his policy proposals actually address the issues they care about. And the cherry on top is definitely his tactics, like his extensive use of the Internet and social networking sites. He valued young voters earlier on in the campaign and more than any of the other candidates.”

Obama support at the U

The national trend appears to hold up at the U, even though the state as a whole is reliably Republican and hasn’t gone for a Democrat for president in decades.
A straw poll of 1,435 U students conducted by the Hinckley Institute last fall as the primary season got underway showed Obama in a statistical tie with local favorite Mitt Romney, who would end up with 90 percent of the vote in Utah’s Republican primary the following spring.

Among women participating in the straw poll, Obama beat all contenders handily, including Hillary Clinton.

Kate Mecham, a senior majoring in political science, said she still sees overwhelming support for Obama at the U now that the choices have been whittled down to two, with Romney no longer in the mix.

“The U student population, in general, seems to be much more interested in this coming election,” she said. “And I would say that’s mainly due to Obama. He just sort of has a presence about him that I think appeals to the younger generation a lot. I’m a senior now, and the friends I made my freshman year just didn’t care anything about politics. Now, if you ask them, they are watching everything and keeping track of what’s going on.”

Mecham said she thinks a lot of it has to do with the charismatic way Obama delivers his speeches and the fact that he has mounted an effective effort to reach out to young people by tapping into the blogging and Internet cultures.

The 2008 College Explorer report found that 88 percent of all students used so-called social media8212;things like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube8212;to gather information about the presidential candidates and that 85 percent of those who used the Internet were “promoters”8212;passing along the information they found to their large networks of social peers.

As further proof of the energy and enthusiasm among U students for Obama, the official campaign Web site for the candidate has an “Activity Index” for each individual grassroots organizing group within the campaign. The index displays a number between one and 10 depending on the amount of activity taking place within that particular group.

On the more broad-based “Utah for Obama” page, the index was at four as of last weekend. On the page for a group calling itself “University of Utah for Obama,” the index sat at a perfect ten.

Question of voter turnout

So the big question still to be answered is whether or not they will actually go and vote this time around.

The College Explorer report found that 92 percent of the students who were surveyed plan to vote in November, and Williams from Campus Progress said, without a doubt, this time they will get out and actually go to the polls.

“It’s going to be very different this time,” she said. “There has been a steady increase over the years in the number of young people coming out to vote since about 2000. The 2008 election is going to be the pinnacle of that. There’s been a lot of work put in to build an infrastructure that is ready to support young people turning out at the polls. I believe that it’s really going to happen.”

[email protected]

Drew Conrad

Michelle Obama?s speech at the Democratic National Convention, in Denver, was well received among those in attendance. A lot of Barack Obama?s support has came college students.